If you're just coming here for the first time, uh... you're late. The site is no longer updated daily (see HERE for the story). But it's still kicking 1-2x a week, and it's better late than never! Before reading any of the "reviews", you should read the intro, the FAQ, the MOVIES I HAVE ALREADY SEEN list, and if you want, the glossary of genre terms and "What is Horror?", which explains some of the "that's not horror!" entries. And to keep things clean, all off topic posts are re-dated to be in JANUARY 2007 (which was before I began doing this little project) once they have 'expired' (i.e. are 10 days old).

Due to many people commenting "I have to see this movie!" after a review, I have decided to add Amazon links within the reviews (they are located at the bottom), as well as a few links to the Horror Movie A Day Store around the page, hopefully non-obstructively. Amazon will also automatically link things they find relevant, so there might be a few random links in a review as well. If they become annoying, I'll remove the functionality. Right now I'm just kind of amused what they come up with (for example, they highlighted 'a horror movie' in the middle of one review and it links to, of all things, the 50 Chilling Movies Budget Pack!!!).

Last but not least, some reviews contain spoilers (NOTE - With a few exceptions, anything written on the back of the DVD or that occurs less than halfway through the movie I do NOT consider a spoiler). I will be adding 'spoiler alerts' for these reviews as I go through and re-do the older reviews (longtime readers may notice that there is now a 'show more' which cleaned up the main page, as well as listing the source of the movie I watched, i.e. Theaters, DVD, TV) to reflect the new format. This is time consuming, so bear with me.

Thanks for coming by and be sure to leave comments, play nice, and as always, watch Cathy's Curse.


Blood Fest (2018)

OCTOBER 12, 2018


I recently bemoaned the less than record-breaking box office of Hell Fest on Twitter, and someone replied that Blood Fest coming out at the same time didn't do it any favors. To be fair, he had a point - both films are about some kids who find themselves being killed for real in a Halloween haunted park attraction - but they are very different in both plot and tone. Ultimately it'd be like suggesting that Incredibles 2 should have tanked because Avengers Infinity War also came out so people didn't have any more interest in superhero ensembles (and, nothing against Blood Fest, but it wasn't a wide release and the Blu-ray was released after Hell Fest's debut, so it's not like there was much of an audience that theoretically had its fill). So if you avoided Hell Fest because you saw this already, boo on you! BUT - if you DID see Hell Fest and were considering skipping this, I think it's worth a look.

The biggest difference, of course, is that the kids are aware of the danger they're in right away in Blood Fest, as the host of the park (writer/director Owen Egerton) tells them as much during the opening ceremonies (one of the film's "grain of salt" necessities is that this particular park requires everyone to arrive by a certain time and also pay attention to a guy on a stage instead of going off and doing whatever). In Hell Fest, the characters are stalked by one silent killer who is able to do his thing without drawing attention to himself, but here they lock the doors and try to kill every single person inside (Egerton has hired killer clowns, chainsaw murderers, etc. for the occasion). So it's more survival horror than traditional slasher, even before some dimly explained supernatural elements (zombies, vampires) are added to the mix.

The other key "they're not really alike" element is that this one is kind of played for laughs, though it's not a spoof or anything like that. Scream would be a reasonable point of reference for the tone; the stakes are very real, but the script finds humor throughout thanks to the characters and, yes, many references to horror classics. But they're not above making up movies, either; in order to get around what would be astronomical licensing fees, the characters talk about Halloween and Friday the 13th and what not, but none of the movie posters or attractions (based on movies, I believe?) are drawn from anything you or I have seen. The main one we see is a series called Arbor Day, which has a Jason-like killer and a complicated backstory that directly mocks Halloween's (we're told parts 5 and 6 had some hooey about an alien mark, a clear swipe at "Thorn"), and the film's Robert Englund-esque thespian collecting paychecks to play the killer is one of the people trapped inside with our heroes, which allows for a few more gags but also a minor "Don't meet your heroes" subplot as the guy turns out to be a dick (and of course, warms up to them throughout his time in the film).

One thing it DOES have in common with the other film is how good it looks for what couldn't have been a lot of money (in fact, a lot less than Hell Fest, from what I understand). The kids spend a lot of time in rather anonymous hallways and such as opposed to the haunts, but there is still an impressive sense of scale to what we see, with untold numbers of extras and a gigantic body count. There's enough practical blood to forgive the digital spray, and on that note they actually use CGI correctly for the most part - sizing things up, recoloring shots, etc. There's a bonus feature that shows the before and after shots for many of the film's digital tricks, and I was legit surprised to see how much it was used invisibly, as opposed to "let's make a CGI monster go after them" or whatever. It occasionally looks fake, sure, but the intent is spot on which makes it easier to forgive.

I was also impressed that Egerton wasn't afraid to kill off his characters (so it actually tops Scream in that regard). Since there was a breezy charm to the proceedings I assumed most of our named characters would get out alive, but no - the body count is sufficient and I was often surprised to see someone die when they did. The backstory and "surprise" villain (working with Egerton's character) was a bit dumb, i.e. the kind of thing you'd expect in a movie with no body count whatsoever aimed at younger people (think the live action Scooby Doo films), but they committed to delivering real stakes as if this was a deadly serious film as a whole. So there is some occasional tonal whiplash, and I doubt anyone would ever find it scary or even particularly suspenseful as a result, but it's never a crippling thing - it's just kind of slight as a whole, like a movie you want to casually hang out with as opposed to really invest yourself into.

Along with the aforementioned VFX showcase, the disc comes with a pretty fun commentary by Egerton and some of the actors, where they discuss the usual stuff along with some irreverence and trivia (apparently the Halloween 6 gags were supposed to be more plentiful!) - if you liked the movie's brand of humor, you will like the track. There's also a deleted subplot that I think is supposed to be an in-joke for fans of Rooster Teeth (their online comedy outfit, of which I have next to zero experience with) and some other deleted scenes that unfortunately don't have a "Play All" function nor do they include any explanation for their removal, which always bugs me. On that note, the disc also has like six trailers that you have to manually skip one by one, without access to the menu - another strike against the disc! Why do companies do this? Trailers are advertisements, and the only time we should be forced into watching them is if we are watching the product for free and they need to find another way to get their investment back. If I bought the disc, I shouldn't be subjected to such things, especially not over and over again. If we care about their other movies, we can choose to watch the spots - don't make us kill our remote batteries that much faster by not letting us bypass the lot of them by pressing "menu". Back to the deleted scenes, it includes what would have been the second funniest line in the movie, so give the video store one a look if nothing else. There's also a look at the design of the film, but it's also sans any kind of insight from the filmmakers so it's not particularly useful beyond reasserting that they worked hard on the film.

A sequel is more or less set up at the end, and I'd be fine with spending another 90 minutes with the people who survived. Not all of the humor was my cup of tea (the trailer gave away the one line that really had me burst out laughing), but I was endeared both by the content and the ambition, and I am familiar enough with Egerton (via Twitter and the like) to know he's a real fan of this stuff and not just using it as the butt of his jokes. It's a fine choice for the current season, and the disc has enough bonus content to justify the purchase cost should you choose to go that route. Good work, folks.

What say you?


Halloween (2018)

OCTOBER 17, 2018


For a while there, it looked like I may never get to use my "Halloween Series" tag on this site again unless it was for yet another re-release of one of the films on Blu-ray that inspired me to write something. Multiple incarnations of a new entry in the series fell apart (one just a few weeks before shooting), Dimension seemed to be having problems getting ANYTHING done, and the other "old guard" franchises like Freddy and Leatherface were either on ice or barely getting released, so it just seemed like no one would want to bother. But through some combination of miracles and presumably a healthy number of zeroes on a paycheck, the series was revived by Blumhouse, and they even managed to get Jamie Lee Curtis and John Carpenter on board. Two years and change after it was announced, Halloween (hereafter "H40" so as not to confuse with the same-named original) is now here, and thanks to a few festival and test screenings a lot of info and spoilers are out there, leaving only one question: Was BC, bastion of Halloween continuity and nitpickiest asshole on the planet, satisfied?

As a matter of fact, I was.

This will be a long review, as per tradition, so I just wanted to get that out of the way so you could move on, especially if you've managed to avoid any major spoilers or plot information. I won't get into specifics, but I will be talking about spoiler-y things in general later, so maybe wait to read the rest now that you know it's passed my smell test. It's not a perfect film - there are two blunders at a crucial time in the narrative, and it seems some character beats got left on the cutting room floor (at 105 minutes, I can't exactly blame them for trying to trim wherever they could), but it gets all the important things right: Jamie is at the top of her game (far better than she was in H20), it has a terrific, crowd-pleasing finale, and (most importantly?) the Carpenter score is PERFECT. Yes, some hardcore fans may bristle at the "none of the sequels happened" slate-wiping approach, but if you'd rather make John Carpenter sit down to write music for a scene where a Druid cult talks to Busta Rhymes just to ensure every previous movie got its due, I'm not sure anything can ever make you happy in life.

Might as well start with that approach. The biggest hurdle this movie has to overcome is getting the fans to forget everything else that's happened, including/especially the whole "Michael is Laurie's sister" thing. For many fans (including this one), this has always been the case, either from seeing a sequel first or just hearing about it - it's horror's version of "Darth Vader is Luke's father", i.e. common knowledge to people who haven't even seen the films. And the film does a pretty good job of establishing the non-existence of those other films (better than H20 did, for sure - fans have made attempts to explain how 4-6 could have still happened in H20's timeline, and even though they're wrong, it's at least somewhat possible. This time? Not a chance in hell), as well as waving away the sibling idea through dialogue ("Just something people made up") - but then engineers a plot that sends Michael to Laurie's front door.

So it's kind of a "having cake and eating it too" thing; they want to restore Myers to the "boogeyman" who kills at random, but they also want to give people a showdown between him and his most famous target. To be fair, he does seem fairly content wandering around Haddonfield and murdering folks and only crosses paths with Laurie because she's obsessed and hunting him down... for the first 75 minutes or so. But then there's a plot twist (which I'll get into later) and it's hard to forget he's back to being a random murderer, as he literally drives to Laurie's house when he could have just returned to town and found more people to kill there (Laurie, understandably, lives in isolation outside of town). They're not related anymore, and he sure as hell doesn't work for a Druid cult, but it sure seems like he wants to finish her off in particular.

Speaking of Laurie, the other thing we have to just kind of shrug off is... you know, H20. I don't love that film, but despite the fact that this film is superior in every way, the "I've waited forty years..." stuff never quite lands with the impact it should, because we know it's only been 16 years (since Resurrection), and we've already seen a damaged Laurie have her reunion with the guy in the white mask, which steals a lot of H40's thunder. If you are indeed the ideal audience member for this movie, i.e. one who saw the original and none of the other sequels (and stayed oblivious to the sibling twist), I am eternally jealous of you, because I never managed to fully shake/ignore my memories of those films*, even though many of them were inferior. When Jamie first sees Michael again in this film, as he's being transferred (as always, they transfer this guy on literally the worst night of the year to do so, Halloween Eve), she breaks down and cries, and you want to feel that forty years of buildup that Laurie is feeling - but I'm just like "Well at least she knows it's not a paramedic wearing his mask this time."

But like I said, this approach is preferable to the alternative of saying those movies DID exist, and trying to find a way to explain how it can all work is best left to fans with nothing better to do. For whatever split personality vibes you might get from it, the simplicity of the film is what makes it work as well as it does, and we get to spend more time with Laurie as a human being than as the guide through forty years of conflicting sequels. And it helps demystify Michael, helping us think of him as an everyday real world killer as opposed to a supernatural maniac like Jason or Freddy. Our entry point to the story are the two people behind a true crime podcast, and one of them makes a plea to Laurie for her to go to Smith's Grove (we are led to believe she never has done this) and confront Michael, and say the things that she's been bottling up for the past four decades. She doesn't get to do that, but it got me thinking of how in a normal world, if someone were to survive an attack, they'd likely have to sit in a courtroom with that person and perhaps get some things off their chest there. By removing all the Druid silliness, it's possible to think about that happening, and it becomes a really effective moment. We all laughed in Halloween 5 when they put Myers (with his mask!) in a jail cell, but this version, who has only killed five people and survived a few gunshots (and a needle stabbing - I love that the mask has the hole in it), it doesn't seem strange at all - a character even points out that there are plenty of worse people out there in the here and now (any shooting spree perp you remember killed far more people, for example). It's hard to put aside Laurie's history as we've seen it over the years, but for whatever reason I quickly bought into the idea that this Myers is just another guy who went on one (1) killing spree and got locked up after.

And on that note, one of the things the movie never quite cracks is explaining how Myers got captured in 1978. Originally there was a plan to open the film then and show it (with some minor retconning of the original ending), but it was scrapped at some point, leaving only vague lines of dialogue here and there to sell the idea. Again, Halloween II didn't happen either, so there was no explosion - he was just GONE at the end of the original, and presumably didn't walk back into Smith's Grove himself. But through scattered lines of dialogue it seems he was apprehended shortly after going out the window, with one of the arresting officers being Hawkins, who is played by Will Patton in the film. He's a new character that's kind of treated as a fan favorite coming back to the fold (hell, he even gets a better introduction than Laurie), and even when the film is closer to the end than the beginning they feel the need to remind us that Hawkins was there that night. You gotta love a movie that not only tells us that six other films never happened, but seemingly made one up in between. Not that I want them to change the original's ending, but I wish they did have that flashback or something to not only reinforce the fact that Halloween II's events never happened (explosion aside, it's an easier launching off point since he was at least down for the count, not MIA) but to spare us the awkward dialogue later.

That said, Hawkins is a terrific new character; he's not a sheriff but he fills the Brackett/Meeker role admirably, without coming off as a pale retread of either. He's introduced playing a pinball game, clearly establishing the small-town boredom a veteran cop in that situation must be feeling, but he also knows not to dismiss the idea of Michael Myers running loose in the city. These films have never really found a way to make up for Dr. Loomis' absence in the wake of Donald Pleasence's death, but having a quirky character actor like Patton (who I've loved for over 20 years and was ecstatic to hear that he was cast in a Halloween film) chasing Myers through the town, sometimes alongside a crazed Laurie Strode, is about the best consolation option I can imagine. The "new Loomis", per Laurie, is Dr. Sartain, who we're told was a student of Loomis' (who has now just passed away, presumably of old age) and picked up where he left off in trying to reach Michael. Due to an injury he suffers during Michael's inevitable escape he is sidelined for a good chunk of the narrative, which is for the best since once he wakes up and joins the hunt it's hard not to think about the real Loomis.

OK here's the somewhat spoiler-y paragraph, so skip this one for sure if you want to be unsullied! Sartain is also involved in one of those aforementioned blunders; I'll refrain from getting into it but you'll know exactly what I'm talking about when it happens. In addition to being wholly unnecessary, it will also likely remind you of a bad call in one of the other sequels, which baffled me to no end - they were trying so hard and mostly succeeding in getting us to forget about those, why risk giving us the unpleasant flashback? Especially at the point it occurs in the film, which is roughly the end of act two. Some breathless editing aside, the film is working like gangbusters until then, and while this minor subplot is thankfully done and over with about ten minutes later (and, while not spelled out, we can assume explains something a little hokey in the film's setup), it's a shame that they have to kind of work to get us back on board when they were so close to finishing up with a home run. If the movie's a hit (and tracking suggests it very much will be), I hope they just agree once and for all that there's only one Loomis and we don't need any attempt at a substitute.

The other adults are Judy Greer and Toby Huss as Laurie's daughter and son-in-law, and to no one's surprise they are kind of sidelined. We're told that Karen (Greer) was taken away from Laurie when she was only 12 because the social service folks didn't care too much for how she was being raised (more or less the same way Sarah Connor raised John), so they're not on the best of terms as Karen thinks she's just wacko and of course will realize in the end that Laurie was right. But they don't do much beyond roll their eyes at Laurie and fret about their daughter Allyson, giving Greer yet another opportunity to make the most out of a role that, until the third act, may as well have been filled by Central Casting (see also: Jurassic World, Ant-Man, the new Apes films...). She gets one of the most crowd-pleasing moments in the franchise near the end, and Greer is one of those actresses who will always add a little flavor to her screentime (keep an eye on her at the dinner scene in particular; the focus is on Laurie but she's engaged), but I was hoping she'd get to do more throughout. The movie really could have used a one on one scene between the two women (perhaps there was one; when Karen says that Laurie came to see her earlier that day, it's unclear if she's lying), as we never quite get a glimpse of what their relationship was really like.

Luckily, we do get a bit of how Laurie is with her granddaughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak), as she takes the money she got from the podcast and gives it to the girl in secret. We get the idea that these two hang out more often than Karen knows, which is lovely and sweet (likewise, later on when Laurie has a bit of a breakdown she cries on the girl's shoulder, a reversal of what you'd expect from a granddaughter/grandmother relationship). Allyson and her friends are less prominent than you'd probably expect from a slasher movie, and in fact the other blunder I mentioned (vaguely spoilerish?) is that her boyfriend kind of disappears from the story after pissing her off, without a comeuppance and/or a Brady-style redemption moment. I know it's weird to be like "We need more time with the asshole boyfriend!" (in one of the Easter Egg moments, we are told his father is Lonnie Elam, of "Get your ass away from there!" fame), but it ties into the overall issue that Allyson kind of gets marginalized for a chunk of the film, even disappearing for a bit entirely and suffering a disconnect from the rest of the proceedings when they do cut back to her, as if to say "Don't worry, she's still out there!" It's fine to see Laurie do her thing, but I almost felt kind of bad for Andi, getting to be cast as "the new Laurie Strode", essentially, and then watching the real one do all that stuff. She's practically never even in direct danger from Michael, when all is said and done - though if you ever yelled at Laurie for something she did in the first movie, the film's closing shot seems to be specifically for you, hinting that she'll get her moment down the road.

I do want to digress just for a moment here while I'm on the subject of Laurie and her relationship with Allyson and Karen - I think it's safe to say Laurie ended up going to that dance with Ben Tramer, and kept the party going in the back of his car later, if you catch my meaning. It's forty years later and Allyson is 17, so the earliest Karen could have gotten pregnant is when she was only 22 herself (factoring in both nine month periods), and even earlier if Laurie didn't go out and celebrate surviving the night by having some unprotected fun. It's one of those things no one was probably really thinking about too hard, but it's kind of amusing how everyone that came up with Laurie having a kid (the others being Jamie Lloyd and John Tate) decided that she would have them during college, if she even went at all. Girl forgets her chemistry book ONCE and it's a downhill slide into blowing off her studies forever...

Well it's been 2,600 words so maybe I should talk about the suspense and kills in this slasher movie. I'll just let you know straight up: there are perhaps a number, perhaps even too many off-screen kills in the film, so if you are the type of slasher fan who judges a film based on its death sequences first and foremost, you're going to go away displeased. Michael racks up a fairly high count (I want to say 16?) but we only actually see about half of them, which is in line with Halloween 4 but in a film that's 20 minutes longer, and without any larger scale "Michael kills x number of people in the ____" aftermath scenes like that one's police station and ambulance. I didn't mind it for the most part, but there's one in particular I feel we are really cheated out of seeing; I can't say WHO, obviously, but the character is being proactive when we last see them, and then later their corpse is found, in an awkward manner to boot, leaving us to wonder how exactly things went down and robbing us of our last moments with one of the film's more endearing characters.

But when we DO see Michael in action, oh man. It's a terrific mix of stalking and brutal violence; he gets his Dick Warlock on around the film's halfway point, making his way through a crowded Haddonfield street where residents just assume he's another trick r treater, but takes cues from (don't take the wrong way!) Tyler Mane on occasion as well, ramming heads into walls over and over and stomping on heads (hey, the man's been cooped up for 40 years, so he's got some shit to work out!). I wouldn't have minded a little more playfulness since they were going back to OG Michael (the guy who'd put a sheet on his head and knock plants over to scare people), but he's the scariest he's been since H4, easily. The climax in particular is pitch perfect; it's almost like a home invasion movie with Laurie trying to find Michael in the house, knowing he's hiding in one of her many closets - it's the first time I as an adult have been able to get tensed up watching one of these movies, and it felt GOOD. I also liked how quick and simple the kills were; David Gordon Green and Danny McBride seem to realize that "creative kills" are more of a Jason thing anyway, so his bare hands and kitchen knives serve his purposes 99% of the time, as they should. The mask looks great and new Michael actor James Jude Courtney is a good match for Nick Castle (who also returns for a key moment or two); whatever complaints the fans may have about the continuity and such, there's no way a true fan could dismiss how Michael is depicted this time around.

Speaking of continuity, obviously they had to keep any sort of callbacks to the others to the barest minimum, so there aren't a lot. The most prominent is the Halloween III masks, which are seen in the trailer and messes with nothing since that movie existed in a different universe anyway, but there's a quick nod to Halloween II in the form of one of its briefly seen characters. And it's hard not to think about H20 (or RZ H1) during a gas station bathroom scene, but otherwise they keep their more overt winking confined to the original. I mentioned Lonnie earlier, but there's an even better deep cut for the hardcore; I won't tell you what it is, only to pay attention to radios whenever they're used (also, pay close attention to the set decor in Karen's old bedroom). And near the end, they put a spin on one of the original's iconic moments that had the crowd cheering. Indeed, one thing I noticed about this one compared to others (and other slasher movies in general) is that the crowd-pleasing moments involved the protagonists, not the villain. No one cheers for Michael the way they might for Jason, and I think it's a big part of why the movie works.

In addition to those moments and the expected screams (Green may not be known for horror, but the man can craft a jump scare), the crowd was also laughing a lot, and it was intentional. Perhaps it's not too shocking since the script was co-written by Danny McBride, but there's a lot of genuine humor here, and it's only very rarely ill-placed (a long scene between two cops rambling about Banh Mi sandwiches comes to mind). The two kid characters in particular are hilarious (don't worry, kid haters - they're not in it much; their combined time is probably still less than Lindsey's in the original), and Ray is pretty funny in that hapless dad kind of way (if Breaking Bad never happened you might see Bryan "Malcolm in the Middle" Cranston playing him). Even Laurie gets a couple of chuckles; she's no Keri Tate here, so when she sees a glass of wine she'll happily slurp it down instead of hiding it from her boyfriend. One thing that always bugged me about H20 is that Jamie Lee was basically just playing herself for the most part, but this seems more in line with the Laurie we remember, except now she has a perfectly good reason to be so cautious.

Finally, we come to the music. Oh man. If you've listened to John Carpenter's Lost Themes albums as well as the recent Anthology release (where they redid a bunch of themes, including Halloween's) you'll get a pretty good idea of what it sounds like, and it's just as good as you probably imagine. Occasionally it sounds pretty much identical to the original cues (at least to my ears, which I fully admit are not particularly musically inclined, which is why I rarely discuss music but I figure it's probably sacrilege to not even try for this particular film), but for the most part it sounds familiar enough to recognize the standard themes (though I'm not sure if the slower "Myers House" one ever showed up) but not so much that you'd get the idea Carpenter (along with his usual bandmates, his son Cody and also Daniel Davies) just collected a paycheck. It's gonna get spun a lot by fans of the series and those who just love JC's particular style independent of the films - I wish to hell I had it already so I could have it playing while I wrote this review (I went with Lost Themes for the zillionth time - most of my book was written to that, so it's fitting, heh).

To sum up: it works. No, it's not perfect, but most of what keeps it from that status (besides, you know, the fact that few films ARE) have nothing to do with what the filmmakers did or didn't do - it's just that this material is so well traveled by now, it's just hard to avoid deja vu. But that's the thing about sequels, which gets exponentially harder as the series goes on: you want to give people something new while also retaining the things that make people like it (which will vary - some folks LOVE that Laurie is Michael's sister and are upset that this movie dismisses the idea), and I don't envy anyone who gets hired to find that balance. Everyone here gave it their all, but despite what the script says the movie is still "Halloween 11", ultimately, and can't fully escape the baggage - good or bad - that's on the table with it. But under those circumstances, beyond a few editing choices I fail to see how this could have been any better than it is, and it's pretty damn good. For the first time in the nearly 30 years I've been a fan of this series, I've walked out of a theater happy with the new Halloween film I just saw. Thanks to everyone who finally made that possible.

What say you?

P.S. Someone will ask, so fine, and if there's no space between entries that means it's REALLY close: 1, 4,3, H40,2, 5, RZ H2 (d cut), H20/Curse(either cut), RZ H1,Resurrection.

*After writing this review I watched the movies back to back at the Beyond Fest screening, and it WAS easier to ignore the others without any breaks in between. I recommend a viewing of the original immediately before heading out to the theater!


The House with a Clock in Its Walls (2018)

OCTOBER 11, 2018


When I saw Cabin Fever fifteen years ago I probably never would have guessed that its creator, Eli Roth, would in one year make a Bruce Willis action movie AND a PG kiddie horror flick starring Jack Black. But even if I somehow had, I certainly wouldn't have assumed that the Jack Black one would be superior. The House with a Clock in Its Walls could have been disastrous (like Death Wish was, though I pin far more blame on the casting of Bruce Willis than Eli's direction), but the "Splat Pack" guru seems pretty comfortable with this kind of fare - it's not the best of its type or anything, but it's imaginative and sweet where it needs to be, and he has a good grasp on how to make the scarier scenes work on adults without being too messed up for kids.

Based on the same-named book that I read in 4th grade and can no longer remember at all, the plot concerns a kid named Lewis who loses his parents (or just his mom? It's kind of unclear, he obviously has a dad but he only seems to miss his mom) and is sent to live with his eccentric uncle. Said uncle (Black) lives in a standard old creepy house where weird things happen, and before long Lewis starts to become privy to its secrets. His uncle (and his neighbor, played by Cate Blanchett) can perform magic, and they start to teach him some of the spells, which gets him out of his shell a bit. Naturally, he makes some mistakes and ends up awakening a long-dead bad guy, and they all have to work together to send him back to Hell (or whatever the YA version of Hell is). The book has a bunch of sequels about these characters, so maybe the plots get more complicated or at least interesting, but here the focus seems to be on introducing everyone and giving them a simple story that can yield a few fun setpieces.

And that's fine, because the characters are far more compelling than you'd find in the average "PG horror" movie. Blanchett's Mrs. Zimmerman in particular is incredibly memorable, thanks to both the character's tragic backstory (she lost her family in the Holocaust, a fact Roth commendably relays to the audience with subtlety) and Blanchett's charming performance. While Black has done this kind of thing a lot, she's not exactly the person you'd expect to find in a movie with farting topiary animals and pumpkins that puke seeds - but as you might expect from her long career of being terrific, she nails it. She's fully committed to the occasionally goofy material, but isn't going overboard like her co-stars, and more than once I wished the movie was more about her than Black or the kid.

Especially since the kid is... well, kind of annoying. Granted, he lost his parents and is having a tough time making friends, but he spends most of his time shrieking or crying, like Ron Weasley in the earlier Potter films, and turned up to 11 to boot. The script actually has a strong message about proudly marching to your own beat instead of doing things to impress people you want to like you (an attitude that yields him a would-be girlfriend in the film's closing scenes), but some of that impact is diluted, because I wouldn't want my kid to act like this one, either. Maybe Roth, being out of his element, didn't know how much/little he could reign in the kid's impulses as an actor, but the kid kind of bugged me in the Daddy's Home movies too, so I dunno. As for Black, he's just doing his thing, and you should know whether or not by now that's something you can enjoy or at least tolerate (I thought he was fine).

As for the creepy stuff, it works well, though there isn't a lot of it, surprisingly. While many kids' movies are content to race through dialogue and get to the FX stuff in fear of losing their audiences' interest, Roth (and the script by Supernatural's Eric Kripke) let the plot unfold, if anything, somewhat slowly. The film's villain is barely even hinted at until the second half of the movie, and he doesn't really show up in the flesh until its final 25 minutes, giving the movie a lot of time without much of a momentum. The majority of the things that probably caught your kid's eye in the trailer are all in the third act, so I guess it's good that they're probably more excited about Goosebumps 2 by now; I'm here, three weeks late, to tell you that maybe waiting for video will be better for this one if your kid gets restless easily, as there isn't much exciting stuff in the first hour outside of the odd background effect or quick bit (that purple snake thing behind the door that you saw in the trailer? That's pretty much that entire scene). Once the villain starts wreaking havoc they'll be riveted, just don't be surprised if they frequently skip ahead to the film's final act once they get the DVD.

And they won't care, but for us adults - the FX are good! There's a possessed chair that kind of acts like a pet, and it's so well done that I actually got kind of sad when it was attacked by the villain. The CGI pumpkins could have been a little better, but their puke seems practical for the most part, so it's a fair trade. The house itself is great, kind of a blend of Pee Wee's Playhouse (with all the various things in it just kind of "living" even if they're not the focus of a particular scene) and a standard "Kid moves into a new giant house and has adventures" kind of movie set. I mean, it's an Amblin production, from a guy who knows his shit - it'd be shocking if any of this stuff didn't work, because for the most part they could do these parts in their sleep. It's just the pacing of the script and the kid's performance that hold the movie back a little; it's probably best suited for an 8 or 9 year old who might start rolling their eyes at animated horror stuff for kids, but aren't quite ready for R rated fare. But from an adult, I just want to say kudos to Roth and Kripke for not talking down to the kids or giving them lowest-common-denominator garbage. Even if it can be a bit slow moving, it's never grating - that's ultimately more important.

What say you?


Anna and the Apocalypse (2017)

SEPTEMBER 28, 2018


The first job I had out of college was working QA for a software company, and it was infinitely more boring than it already sounds. To keep myself awake (which didn't always work, of course) I used the software to design a very primitive 3D animation (I called it 2.5D animation because it was so boxy - it wasn't far removed from the Dire Straits video) that I planned to use for an animated zombie musical that I wrote. I took it very seriously; storyboarding the entire script, designing some of the sets and characters, etc... but like with all my ambitious ideas life got in the way and I never finished working on it (to be fair, even if I kept it up I'd probably STILL be working on it, as animated films tend to be the work of thousands, not one asshole who didn't even really know what he was doing). Still, I held out hope I could do it someday, and thanks to Anna and the Apocalypse I know that it might actually be good, too! As nutty as "zombie musical" sounds on paper, it works!

Of course, these people know how to write songs, and were smart/talented enough to attract actual actors, so they got one up on me. Our cast is a group of high school seniors, all of whom find themselves at a crossroads - lead Anna wants to travel a bit before going to college, her best friend John is in love with her, another pal feels her relationship with her girlfriend AND her parents slipping away, etc. Basically, their days would suck even if not for the zombie outbreak that decimates most of the town overnight, giving us a group that you not only want to root to survive, but also some character driven stakes that keep us engaged even when the undead aren't on-screen. Some of the character dynamics are a bit muddled (it was a good twenty minutes before I realized Anna and John *weren't* a couple, for example) which occasionally hampers the more personal storylines, but for the most part it's a movie that might work just as well even if the zombies never showed up.

But they do, and more importantly - they don't particularly care about who you'd assume will live or die. It's not a particularly grim movie, but I was surprised more than once to see certain people get bitten, with the film ultimately giving you enough survivors to find the climax somewhat hopeful while also never once feeling particularly "safe", either. I'm sure some will write it off as too "cutesy" or whatever, but if you strip away the songs and some occasional high school drama that adults may roll their eyes at, you're left with a solid zombie story that largely refrains from embracing the cliches (there's only one "evil human", an asshole professor from their school who we know is a prick even before the zombies appear) and thankfully doesn't waste time with people trying to figure out what they are and how they can be stopped.

Which, I guess, is a good a place as any to admit that yes, the writers have clearly seen Shaun of the Dead. There's a scene where Anna sings an upbeat "It's gonna be a great day!" kind of song while remaining oblivious to the zombie carnage around her, and even if you haven't seen that film since 2004 you might be reminded of the bit where Shaun walks to the store, so caught up in his own business he doesn't notice anything amiss. The zombie discussion is also quite similar to Shaun's; these people have seen zombies in popular culture and more or less instantly accept that that is what they are dealing with, no further debate necessary. To be fair, it carves enough of its own identity that it never feels like a "rip-off" of Edgar Wright's film, but don't be surprised if you think of it more than anything from Romero or Kirkman.

But none of those dudes ever thought to have people sing about the zombies! The songs don't sound like traditional showtunes; modern pop musicals like High School Musical are more of an influence than Little Shop or Rocky Horror, and most of the songs are ensembles as opposed to solos or even duets - there might be two of those out of ten or so songs? I didn't keep track, but it's definitely lopsided in favor of letting a good chunk of the cast sing on the song of the moment. The songs themselves are bubblegum pop (unlike the more dance-inspired ones in the HSM films), and the message of most is basically "life can be a drag but you gotta keep fighting on", so it can feel a touch repetitive as it goes - and it doesn't help that the best two songs are also the first two songs, IMO - but there's so much charm it's easy to forgive. Still, if the average Kelly Clarkson hit has you wanting to plug your ears, I would probably skip this one.

Or just skip the songs, as it's not like they drench the film, with as much as ten minutes going by between them. Again I didn't keep count, but it seemed to me there were fewer songs than any other movie musical I can recall, allowing you to "get into" the film in ways most musicals don't allow. The first one doesn't even kick in until a few scenes have passed, so you might already be a bit invested before anyone even opens their mouth to sing (and, as I said, those first songs are the best ones, buying the movie more goodwill than it ultimately needed), which is a smart move for something so offbeat and also without the benefit of an existing stage show or whatever to familiarize yourself with the songs. Unlike La La Land or Greatest Showman, this doesn't have big stars to lure you in, making it all the more impressive that they even got it made, let alone with what seems like a decent-sized budget. The school gets used a lot, but there are big sequences in a variety of other locales (a bowling alley, a Christmas tree lot, Anna's neighborhood, etc.) and plenty of carnage as well, including far more bloodspray (often practical!) than I would have guessed beforehand. The filmmakers clearly aimed to please horror/zombie fans *and* musical fans in equal measures, and I think they largely succeeded.

Given the film's UK roots, largely unknown cast, and polarizing sub-genre, I'm surprised that Orion is opting to open the film wide, but it's a gamble I certainly endorse. It's a crowd-pleaser for sure, and given the film's Christmas setting it will be not just be fine counter-programming for all of the Oscar bait that will start choking our theaters come November, but also the sort of film you'll hopefully be in the mood for anyway, as it's not as mean-spirited as most Christmas horror movies are. Despite the R rating (for language and violence, though the latter is never remotely as graphic as that of Walking Dead), it's borderline family friendly, so it'll be a fine addition to your collection of seasonal Blu-rays. I know I can't wait to throw it on during one of my annual Christmas Eve Watch And Build-A-Thons (where I assemble a large Lego set while watching Christmas specials and movies), and might even make it one of Will's first zombie movies once he's ready for such fare (Shaun will probably come first, natch). Until then, I'm just happy that it exists: a zombie film with charm, satisfying me as a horror fan AND a guy who knows more Taylor Swift songs than you might expect.

What say you?


Hell Fest (2018)

SEPTEMBER 19, 2018


It's truly happening! After the success of last year's Happy Death Day, I was hopeful that a slasher revival would be forthcoming, but wasn't sure if the lesson studios would take was "PG-13 slashers can work!" and ruin everything. But both Halloween and Hell Fest are rated R, and while the former has almost no chance of flopping (I heard it's tracking to open higher than most of the other sequels even grossed in their entirety) due to its legacy and seasonal timeliness, if folks show up for an original, straightforward body count flick like this, I think my slasher requirements will be met for the next couple years. And they damn well should show up, because this gets a lot more right than wrong, owing more to Halloween than Scream and doing a damn fine job of capturing the spirit of Halloween Horror Night type attractions.

At any given point during any of the dozen or so times I've been to one of these seasonal attractions (in which a theme park - Six Flags, Universal, etc - is redressed with scary stuff and mazes during September and October), I've wondered if a real life murder could go down right in front of me and my fellow punters without us realizing it wasn't part of the act. Clearly, whichever one of the six credited writers came up with the idea wondered the same thing, and that's more or less what kicks off the main plot in the movie. Our killer is stalking a trio of random girls in the park and crosses paths with our hero group, who encourage him to kill the girl, assuming it's just as fake as the giant furry spiders that scared them moments earlier. He obliges, then sets his sights on them, freaking them out and on occasion permanently separating one from their friends... all while the park is open. Unlike The Funhouse or (ugh) Dark Ride, this doesn't cheap out and come up with some convoluted reason for our heroes to be in the park alone with the killer - they're just trying to enjoy their evening, and he's able to hide in plain sight, having donned the attire of the guys in one of the park's signature mazes (if you've ever been in one, you'd know that each ride's "icon" killer appears several times - I must have seen half a dozen Myers in the Universal Halloween 4 attraction).

Not only does this keep the movie from having to strain more credulity than necessary for a slasher (let's face it, they all kind of have to politely request you look the other way on a few points, especially a modern one with cell phones), but it also gives the film a rarity for slasher films: an abundance of solid jump scares! Short of having the killer pop out every five minutes without actually doing anything, it's hard to give an audience those "Boo!" moments in these things without resorting to fake scares, like people inexplicably creeping up on their friends, or the heroine walking backwards and bumping into something, and of course we can't forget the classic "let's crank the volume of a ringing phone" maneuver. These things are tiresome even on first viewing, and make a film easy to avoid going back to, but an audience used to things like Annabelle: Creation and the Insidii might get restless at something paced like a traditional slasher, where you might go a while without anything particularly scary beyond a POV shot or something.

But not in Hell Fest! Since the rides are operational and the kids aren't aware they are in danger, they are free (and right) to keep going through mazes, where our killer usually follows them, but if not the other characters in the mazes pick up the slack (not to mention props that are triggered to pop out at them), and it helps keep the film "popping" in between the kills. Because, let's face it, if he was offing people left and right from the start, there'd be no way to buy that the bodies weren't discovered, which would in turn close down the park. And even if not, there would have to be a way for our heroes to not get suspicious - it's not like Friday the 13th where they can assume they're in another cabin (and of course, they wouldn't have cell phones to ask). So if you were to look at some sort of chart that marked where the kills fell in the runtime, you might sigh a bit as it would look like the film didn't have a lot of "action", but in reality it keeps things moving by letting our characters do what they came there to do, and let us in the audience have that fun along with them. It's a gamble that pays off, at least for me

And it IS fun to hang out with these kids, because - thank the gods - they're actually likeable and, get this, they don't hate each other! If you read a lot of my stuff you'd know how much I detest the seemingly endless trend of having our protagonists be involved in some sort of cheating scenario, where the heroine either cheated with her boyfriend's best friend, or her boyfriend cheated with HER best friend. The point, for lack of a better word, is to give the characters a reason to split up (and, after they've been killed, an excuse for the other people not to think much of their absence, "they're just blowing off steam, leave them alone for a while"), but the writers here found ways to do that without cliched conflict. One guy splits away from the pack to win his girlfriend a stuffed animal from one of the overpriced carnival games, for example - it's the same end result, but in a way that's endearing instead of obnoxious. Why this seems to be such a hard concept for the folks behind any of the films Hell Fest will inevitably be compared to (including, sadly, the new Halloween, as the main girl's boyfriend pulls a Brady and starts kissing another girl) is beyond me, but I was very happy to almost feel sad when someone got killed - no one here "deserved" it.

As for the kills, they might be spread out but they deliver, with the killer (dubbed The Other) having a thing for head trauma, which legit startled me the first time I saw it in action (and then I laughed at the recollection that people were convinced this would be a PG-13 movie). The Other is also a solid addition to the slasher roster; his costume is "basic" enough that it can conceivably be recreated by a half dozen actors in the park, but not so generic that you'd fail to recognize it should he get to appear in a sequel or get his own action figure someday, so it's got one up on the Prom Night remake if nothing else. As for weaponry, he gets lots of points for resourcefulness - I won't spoil all his implements, but grabbing the ice pick from one of the park's sno-cone stands is pretty inspired.

"Why didn't he bring a weapon?" you ask? Well that's because one of the many details they get right is that these parks often have metal detectors, presumably out of fear that this sort of thing would happen. The production built pretty much everything horror-oriented on the grounds of an existing park that they only had access to for a few weeks, and it's pretty damn impressive considering that - as you might expect from an original R rated slasher movie - they didn't have a lot of money at their disposal. The mazes feel very much in line with what you'd find at your park, such as a demonic school and an old timey carnival populated by scarecrow zombie things, and I had to smile at the moment where, despite their "front of the line" passes, they still had to wait for a bit at one of the bigger attractions, as that happened to us on occasion the other night at Universal. Naturally, for the plot to work they have to take a few liberties, such as the fact that the mazes aren't peppered with staff members trying (failing) to blend into their backgrounds and not break the immersion while ensuring no one's up to shenanigans, and no one else ever seems to be remotely near the kids when they're going through the various attractions, but for the most part you'd probably never doubt this was a legit place.

There are spoilers of a sort in the next paragraph, so skip that one if you don't want to know anything about the killer and his backstory!

Still there? OK, one of the things I loved most is that the killer has no backstory, or even a name. And I know I warned about spoilers but the movie kind of "reveals" that it won't be a whodunit as soon as he shows up in the park, because we've only met our group of six heroes (who arrive at the park about ten minutes into the movie) and they are all still together when he arrives - if it's a whodunit, there are no potential suspects, and we see a sliver of his profile which cancels out the rare characters we meet later, such as Tony Todd in what is really a cameo (and should have been kept as a surprise since his one scene occurs like an hour or so in) and an older, slightly portly security guard who doesn't believe our main girl when she starts suspecting something is up. We are given one tiny bit of information about him in the film's final scene, but otherwise he's still a blank slate. If we get a sequel, they can keep letting him be a mystery, or they can start building up a mythology, but for now they did it exactly the way John Carpenter did in 1978 (and even HE had a name and some kind of backstory), so if you come out of the movie complaining that you don't know "Why", you're a bad slasher fan.

Ultimately, my only real concern with the movie (besides committing the sin of offing two characters at once in a low body count slasher - you gotta spread the wealth, even if it works as a shock) is that the climactic battle is pretty short, one of those deals where you "know" that it ain't over yet and the killer's gonna get back up and have a bigger fight, but no dice. It'd be like if Halloween ended on Laurie stabbing Myers by the couch, without the closet scene upstairs, or if a Scream movie ended with only one killer (hehe). The concept behind a chunk of the finale, involving motion sensor scares that are alerting the killer to their location (and vice versa) and our heroine having to turn the tables and stand silently among some mannequins, is inspired and all works good - it's just over too quickly, as if they were afraid of going over 90 minutes (it's a lean 88, right in the ideal territory for these things) and scrapped a second showdown. Then again, maybe they were worried that inflicting too much damage on the guy would put things into supernatural territory, so perhaps if we get a Hell Fest 2 it will be easier to accept.

Otherwise it's an ideal entry in what I call the "B+ movies", where it's doing exactly what it needs to but doing it well instead of just doing it "more". We spend enough time with the kids to like them (the burgeoning romance between the heroine and her crush is legitimately endearing to watch, and both actors play the awkwardness wonderfully), but not so much that we ever forget what kind of movie this is. The kills are gory without being gratuitous or grim, the killer has got the slow-walking/creepy standing around thing down pat, and the setting is used for nearly its maximum potential (I wouldn't have minded a scene of our guy nonchalantly trailing them, without calling attention to it - perhaps filing through a queue a few groups behind or something?). They even find a way to make good use of cell phones! I admit some of my enthusiasm may stem from being so deprived of solid fare as of late, but let's not forget that the slasher sub-genre thrived when it was just keeping things simple and giving people a good time at the movies. I know everyone's got October 19th circled on their calendar, but are you really gonna wait for the entree when you can have a solid appetizer right now? There's room for both. Indulge!

What say you?


Pet Sematary II (1992)

SEPTEMBER 15, 2018


After I had my kid I vowed to never watch Pet Sematary again until he was too old to be getting hit by cars (if he gets hit by one as an adult it's not something I can blame myself for; it just means he's just a dumbass), but Pet Sematary II was fair game, at least as far as I could recall. I saw the film theatrically in 1992 (and vividly remember having trailers for Dr. Giggles, Candyman, Hellraiser III, and Innocent Blood - none of which I got to see until video, boo) and a couple times on cable after that, but it had been at least 20 years since my last viewing, and couldn't remember much beyond Clancy Brown using a dirt bike tire to splatter a bully's head. I also recalled that it was about a father and son coping with the loss of the mom, but couldn't remember which of them (if either) put her in the titular locale. Needless to say, I definitely couldn't remember if it was any good (seems if I loved it as a kid I would have watched it more than 3-4 total times), so after playing PS4 (Spider-Man, specifically - it's so good!) for a few hours and finding it while scrolling around Amazon Prime, I loaded it up, figuring I'd fall asleep and would finish it the next day on the off chance it seemed worth the revisit.

But it was pretty good! And, much more surprising, I didn't fall asleep! I eventually shut it off around the halfway point because I basically *had* to go to bed by then (it was like 2 am), finishing it the next day. A few things came back, like a bit where Anthony Edwards (as Ed Furlong's dad and the town veterinarian) tells some little girls where to find some free kittens to adopt, only for them to find the little furballs all torn to pieces by Zowie (a wolfdog that takes the Church the Cat role of "pet that comes back evil but teaches us no lesson whatsoever" this time around), but for the most part it was kind of like seeing a movie for the first time, which is always fun. It's kind of the only good thing about aging, really - if I wait long enough I can be re-surprised by a movie I already saw. I totally forgot about the Marjorie character, who is a sort of love interest for Edwards' character, and thus (spoiler for 26 year old movie ahead!) got to be pretty stunned when she got offed in the climax, figuring she'd get to do something motherly to save Furlong and maybe hint at being a stepmom down the road. Nope, she's dead! You can't ever be happy, Anthony Edwards!

Curiously, the plot is somewhat similar to Return to Salem's Lot, which is another sequel to a Stephen King movie based on a (non-sequelized) book. Both of them have a father and son moving to the town where the events of the first film occurred, with the son falling in with the town's deadly secrets and the dad trying to save him before it's too late. And once again there are no returning characters, though I guess that's not too surprising here since pretty much everyone died in the original. The only exception was Ellie, the daughter, and apparently the original idea for this film was to present her as a teenager, but the execs weren't sure anyone would be into a movie about a teenage girl, which is pretty funny if you think about the fact that the tradition of making Stephen King movies began with a movie about a teenage girl. So we get Furlong, because at that point execs were more convinced people would see a movie about him (after the box office failure of this and Brainscan, they realized that no, we would not).

However, they do work in a character that was left out of the first movie: Church's vet, Dr. Jolander. It's funny, because even though I haven't read the book (I tried, when I was like 10 or 11, after seeing the movie - but found it too hard to follow. I'll finish it someday, swear!) there was something about him, from the first second he appears, that made me feel he was a legit King character, unlike all of the others in the film who were created specifically for it. He's even introduced the way one might bring back a fan favorite character for a cameo, so even though it's a bit clunky I like how they at least made a good effort into tying it into the first film and King's world as a whole. The only other real reference to the first film is when the kids bike past the abandoned Creed house, and of course the "Sematary" itself, which looks about the same to my eyes even though the film was shot in Georgia instead of Maine.

Of course, the two films share a director in Mary Lambert, so it makes sense she'd go the extra mile to tie the two films together however she could. And she does a fine job again here; even Furlong is better than usual, and she gets a terrific performance from Clancy Brown, who starts off as a typical Brown character (authoritarian asshole) but after he is killed and revived, he's kind of like a goofy Frankenstein's monster of sorts. There's a great little scene where he's at the dinner table with his stepson and Furlong (the kid's bestie), shoveling food into his mouth and opening wide like a little kid would, making the boys laugh - it almost seems like he came back "good" since he was an asshole to begin with. But before long he starts killing people (he also rapes his wife, who is understandably not in the mood to fool around with an ice cold dude sporting a gaping neck wound), killing that theory, though it is kind of fun to see a human more or less making their way through life again, something the first film never had the chance to do since Gage was in killer mode almost instantly and the movie ended when the mom returned.

The one big blunder is that the "revive the mom" subplot kicks in so late, you wonder if they had a different ending or simply forgot to film some scenes along the way. You've practically forgotten about her by the time she's revived, and I don't know if it's just Furlong's subpar acting or bad writing, but I don't buy him teaming up with Zombie Clancy Brown (who is the one that exhumes the body and seemingly doesn't want to harm him for whatever reason) or seemingly choosing her over his normally living dad. Apparently there's a longer version out there with more gore (a bootleg, not an official release) but I'm curious if there are some character beats that got dropped along the way as well. Just seems like a lot of folks turn on a dime with regards to their actions, as if it WAS based on a book, a much longer one that had the time to pace these arcs more carefully.

Otherwise, the only other issue is that the Ramones song during the credits isn't as good, though there's a solid Dramarama track ("I've Got Spies") and L7's "Shitlist", beating Natural Born Killers by two years. I can only assume it was the general disinterest in horror during that period that kept the movie from being a hit (indeed, of all the films I listed above, it outgrossed all but Candyman), because in its low-key way it really does offer an ideal sequel, retaining the basic idea and keeping a consistent vibe, but offering new ideas and opening up the mythology a bit to plant the seeds for future installments should they come to pass. I don't know if it could have been a long-running franchise like the Children of the Corn films, but come on, even Mangler got two sequels - we shoulda gotten one more trip to Ludlow! Oh well. Maybe if the upcoming adaptation (coming next year, 30 years after the original) is a big hit they can try again. But if not, at least we have this one, which is better than it has any right to be.

What say you?


The Toybox (2018)

SEPTEMBER 12, 2018


Roughly 95% of my unread emails are links to screener versions of various low-budget/indie horror movies; the sort of thing I'd watch all the time back when this site was updated daily. Since "quitting" I'm much more selective, because a lot of these movies are bad and caused me to quit in the first place (or were so anonymous and bland I'd have nothing to say about them), but I keep them lying around for the days I find myself with time to kill. One such example is The Toybox, which I got a few emails about and didn't think much of it, but opted to watch the trailer and saw that the protagonists seemingly lived not too far from me in the deep San Fernando Valley, if the establishing shots were any indication. I mean, I couldn't quite see my house, but I saw the roads I drive on every day, so I was kind of endeared to it and gave it a shot.

Plus, it was about a haunted RV, which could be disastrous but at least offered more options than the usual haunted car (or haunted racist truck, if you're Supernatural), which made their choice of filming location tickle me even more. See, at my previous place, two miles from where I am now (and even closer to the street seen in the film), there was this motel around the corner that always had an RV parked in front of it. For the two years I lived there, I don't think I ever saw that thing move, and while it was kind of an ugly looking thing it was helpful to give directions to people who might have trouble finding our street - "Just look for the RV parked on the street and turn there." Plus I was amused at the idea of it being outside of a motel, as if to taunt them, since an RV provides the same "temporary" accommodations with the added bonus of a CB radio. But the fact that it didn't move kind of unnerved me - what the hell was going on in there?

So when I saw the neighborhood in this haunted RV movie I had to wonder if someone from the creative team (the story is attributed to four men) lived around there and had the same thoughts, and came up with the idea of someone taking the vehicle from the area into the empty desert on a family road trip, only for it to go all Christine on them and pick them off one by one. I've said in the past that the reason you don't see a lot of Thanksgiving-themed horror movies is because that's more of a family holiday and no one wants to see little kids and a kindly grandmother being offed, and this movie just kind of proves my point - it's kind of a grim affair. The family is a man, his two adult sons (the mom recently died), and the wife and daughter of one of those sons. The other son is introduced as and continues to act like an asshole, and then they meet up with two randos (including top-billed Mischa Barton) whose truck broke down, so I'm thinking those three and probably the father die, leaving the other son and his family intact, right? Well, I won't spoil the specifics, but I was wrong.

Thus, it's a darker film than I was expecting, and there's more to it than just the body count. I also figured the source of the RV's haunting would be a standard "an evil guy died in it" kind of thing and they'd find his rotting corpse stuffed under the bunk beds or whatever, but it turns out the RV was where a serial killer would torture/kill his victims (dubbed his "Toybox" - hence the title) and now that he's dead he's just keeping up his MO. We don't see a lot of his murders, just photographs and flashbacks, but again it's grimmer than the likes of The Car or something along those lines, which was a bit of a surprise. I've often wondered why so many of these indie horror films feel rather toothless, given that they aren't required to make $100m, so it's nice to see one that takes advantage of the fact that it doesn't have to appeal to everyone.

It also makes good use of the RV setting. For a while we get smaller examples of its power - the evil force tries to shut a window on someone's hand (after baking them a bit by not letting them open the windows at all), and the engine revs up when being worked on, causing a pretty nasty cut. But then it starts killing them off, running them over when no one's actually driving, or rocking about and sending folks toppling around and getting banged up. Even when it breaks down, the characters never stray far from it (a mix of having no supplies and the force seemingly keeping them there), but the DP and camera team manage to keep it from feeling awkward and cramped, even when more exciting things are occurring (if you've never been in an RV, trust me - it's not exactly spacious). I can't help but think of Michael Bay's meeting on Phone Booth where he asked the producers how they could get him out of the booth; even when they had a good excuse to leave the RV in the distance, they stick around and keep using it, so kudos to them.

The film only really falters with some of the acting, and writing for the scenes after a loved one dies (spoilers ahead, skip paragraph if you're a spoilerphobe!). In a move that was probably dictated by child labor laws more than anything else, the little girl gets killed shockingly early, but the parents seem more annoyed by it than devastated. Later on, another member of the family dies and not only does the person who should be most upset barely even seem annoyed this time around, he also encourages a conversation revealing why his parents split up a decade or so earlier. Is that really important right now? One could chalk it up to shock or something, but the actors in question don't seem to be displaying any of that sort of emotion - it just comes off like people not giving a shit that they just lost their family. It's one thing for a slasher or whatever when people are kind of blase about their friends dying, but here it really kind of sticks out as sloppy. My man should be a blubbering mess by the halfway point but he's coming off like he's just angry that the RV broke down and he's gonna miss an important work meeting.

There's also a strange, largely abandoned subplot of people seeing things that already happened, as if to suggest time travel is in play. One in particular has Barton's character inside the RV, looking out the window and seeing a death that happened not too long ago, banging on the window and such to try to stop it from happening (again?), but there's no real explanation for this or the several occasions where they see themselves on the RV's (supposedly broken) television. Normally I'd assume it was just aimless padding, but the movie runs a little longer than average (95 minutes) so it doesn't seem particularly necessary. It's not a crippling thing, but kind of gives the impression they weren't quite sure how to end the film and were setting things up just in case they needed them.

But it mostly works, and at least feels different than most stuff out there - it doesn't seem to be chasing any particular trend, and as far as I can tell the actors are all actual actors, not social media "stars". And it's also refreshingly tech-free: even when they say that they can't get a signal (as required by Horror Movie Law), we're spared shots of their phones, so five or six years from now it won't inspire any giggles the way folks do whenever they see a flip phone. Nothing essential, but it held my interest, which is more than I can say for most of its brethren, and if it ends up on Netflix or Prime (it's actually opening theatrically in LA tomorrow, with a Blu-ray next week) and you're not in the mood for another James Wan wannabe or teen-driven thing, it should do you just fine. And probably make you feel like a more loving parent.

What say you?

P.S. This is the second movie called The Toybox that I've seen/reviewed for HMAD, and oddly enough, I saw the other one the same week Halloween (2007) came out. Well guess what I'm seeing tonight?


The Nun (2018)



The problem with most horror franchises is that they need to keep finding ways to resurrect their central boogeyman, but The Conjuring "universe" has found an easy way around that by introducing the Warrens' room of haunted trinkets, and mixing their real life cases with some made-up ones so they can continue introducing things briefly in the mainline Conjuring movies that otherwise focus on other cases. It worked out so well for Annabelle that it got its own prequel (which outgrossed the original, so there's probably a third one coming), so they're trying again with The Nun, based on one of the terrors from Conjuring 2, and if box office estimates are correct it will once again be a lucrative endeavor - but I'm not sure audiences will ultimately be as satisfied this time around.

Unlike Annabelle, which was at least derived from an actual (or "actual") haunted Raggedy Ann doll, there's no basis in reality for this particular story - there's a demon named Valac in the old lore, but it has no relation to "Valak" from Conjuring 2, nor did it ever take the form of a nun, far as I know. And neither of the Nun's primary characters - a priest who is sent to perform investigations on behalf of the church, and a nun-in-training who occasionally has visions - are based on real people either. The only exception is kind of a spoiler, so I can't get into that, except to say that a lot of what we see here is also made up but seems to be leading into the plot for the potential sequel, one that would presumably tie it into the main Conjuring films more than the Annabelle films (or this one) ever managed.

So long story short, they had to make up pretty much everything here, but despite that license they didn't quite flesh it out as much as they did for the Annabelles (and when I say "they" it's not a stretch - it's the same screenwriter and producers as those films). Bizarrely, the movie kind of tells us a lot in its opening sequence: there's an old, isolated abbey in Romania that has some sort of evil force contained within it, and the nuns are the gatekeepers, preventing it from getting out to the rest of the world. But it's one of those movies where we know more than the protagonist, so we spend a lot of time watching Taissa Farmiga's character wander around, getting spooked when the internal Horror Movie Scare Clock demands it, until learning that... there's an evil force in the abbey and the nuns are keeping it from getting out. It's almost like the opening scene wasn't supposed to be there, because it's treated as a big reveal later.

Even weirder (spoilers here, skip to next paragraph if you wish) the same opening has a nun kill herself to prevent the demon from having a vessel (i.e. a living body), which any intelligent viewer can understand to mean that there were no other nuns there, because otherwise it'd be a pretty pointless action to take. So when Farmiga and the priest (Demian Bichir as Father Burke, possibly a reference to Exorcist's Burke Dennings?) arrive and talk to a few nuns, my initial thought was "Oh, the nuns are all ghosts", because - again - the nun killed herself to keep the demon from having a vessel. If there were other nuns there she'd just be dooming one of them to get possessed instead, which isn't very Christian of her. But an hour goes by before they tell us that there are no other nuns there, they are indeed ghosts, and that the one who killed herself was the last one. It's clunky, to say the least.

I was also baffled by the fact that they seem to be hiding Farmiga's character's name, which is Irene - I think they only say it once near the beginning of the film and never again. Given her sister's prominence in this franchise, and their similar looks, I thought it was an intentional bit of subterfuge that she was mostly ever addressed as "Sister", and we'd find out she was actually a young Lorraine Warren or at least her sister (heh) or something, but no. So it's just a weird casting choice; nothing against Taissa but of all the actresses in the world, and given the series' habit (heh, again!) of twists, why would they distract us by putting her in the role? The film's setting (1952) is even perfect for this kind of thing, as Taissa is within a year of the age Lorraine would have been then, but while there is a twist at the end (a pretty good one, too) it has nothing to do with her. Alas, this means that her rather thinly drawn character - which I was assuming throughout most of the runtime was intentional to try to hide her identity from us - was just that, and in a movie with only three characters of note, that kind of hurts.

None of those three characters are the titular Nun, by the way. She doesn't really appear all that much, oddly enough; Burke tells of a botched exorcism that haunts him and so he is menaced by a demonic version of the little boy he failed to save, and I swear he appears just as much as the Nun. "The Nuns" would be a more accurate title, since instead of just the main one (played by Bonnie Aarons again) we just get a lot of anonymous ghost nuns without faces, as anyone who has seen the trailer can tell you (where Taissa turns to see one following her, only to be attacked by a second one from her side). This allows for some of the film's most memorable sequences, like when a character has to make his way through them and they all turn in unison and sort of flock in one direction, but at the end of the film I felt I didn't really get more time with the "character" than I did in Conjuring 2. I mean, with Annabelle they couldn't really do all that much with the doll but managed to give it a full presence in the movies - they don't quite manage the same thing here, which is weird when it can, you know, move.

But that sequence, and a few others, make the movie watchable and even fairly fun for the most part, despite the story's shortcomings. There's a fun "buried alive" bit, an attack on a guy in a cemetery (with a fantastic punchline involving a cross), the scenes in the catacombs are all solid, and - even though it's mostly just exposition - the flashback scene explaining how the evil came to be sealed/released in the abbey is pretty great, to the point where I almost wish it was the main part of the story in the first place (but hey, now they can do a prequel to this prequel to the sequel!). And those are just the highlights; I should stress that the movie didn't have any BAD scenes, and I was never really bored - it just didn't quite all gel together in a fully satisfying way. The plot isn't exactly complicated, and as I said we kind of learn some of the information twice, so there isn't a lot of momentum or build-up to the narrative, so your mileage will vary and exclusively depends on how well the scares work for you. It's fun, but not as involving as I may have hoped.

That said, I am happy to report there aren't as many jump scares as there were in Annabelle: Creation. Director Corin Hardy (whose movie The Hallow is highly recommended) shares producer James Wan's love of fog machines and gives the film a sort of Hammer vibe (a scene where one of our protagonists visits a pub seems straight out of Plague of the Zombies or one of those), so there's more of an emphasis on atmosphere than giving the audience a reason to look up from their phones. It's still got plenty of those jolt moments (the best, alas, is the one from the trailer, which by now didn't even cause a titter in my audience), but Hardy doesn't seemingly feel the need to overload the film with them like it's some sort of competition. For the most part, they happen when they should, and while some work better than others, none of them are "fake", which is always a plus in my book.

They have already announced a movie about Crooked Man (also from C2), plus sequels to all existing branches, so this franchise isn't going away any time soon. But I hope the spinoff folks start realizing that a big part of what made us like the Conjurings was the characters and their loving bond, which made us want to go on those journeys with them. We can debate the accountability of the *actual* Warrens all day long, but the slightly fictionalized versions played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are winners, and the three spinoffs have yet to come up with anyone as personable as them. And that's not a slight against any of the actors who have played the heroes in these other movies - it's just a side effect of centering them around the demon baddies. But when they're all prequels, we kind of know that the heroes in these films will have short-lived victories (if any), so I wish they spent more time giving us a reason to want to see them succeed, or at least survive. Otherwise they're just kind of like slasher movies without victims, giving us iconic villains who ultimately don't really do anything memorable.

What say you?


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